Why Personal Values Matter Big-Time (and How To Figure Out Your Own)


Socrates once said:

An unexamined life is not worth living.

Many people struggle in life because they feel aimless and lost.

If you don’t have standards to measure your behavior against, how will you ever know your life is moving in the right direction?

If you don’t have a set of values to live by, how will you know which decision to make?

The act of creating your own personal code and doing everything you can to live by it will make your life much easier in the long run.

You don’t have to guess anymore because you know what to do. You know what to do because you’ve taken the time to articulate what a good life means to you.

That’s the most important part. You should create your personal code and set of values based on the way you really think. Not based on the popular opinion of society, your friends, or even people like me who give advice on how to live.

Deep down, you have a sense of right and wrong. You know what you want, but you’re scared to put it in concrete terms because of what you have to sacrifice to live up to those standards.

I’ll walk you through how to create this code and I’ll also tell you what to do when life inevitably tries to make you break it.


Step 1: Answer these three questions

The point of this exercise isn’t to have the perfect answer. It’s to have an answer in the first place.

Most people wouldn’t be able to answer these questions off the top of their heads because they haven’t actually taken the time to think about it. And then they wonder why they have this vague sense of unease in life.

Be different. Take the time to really think about this. I suggest taking time to answer each question separately by journaling your answers thoroughly. Morning pages work really well for this exercise.

Write down the answer to one question and take a day to sit on it. Then, write a second draft where you revise your opinion after giving your thoughts time to refine your vision for your life.

Understand who you are and what you value

  • What kind of person are you? – What do you enjoy? What do you hate doing? Do you make a better leader or are you suited to be a top advisor type? Are you materialistic or minimalist? What are your strengths and weakness? Can you be brutally honest about all the above?
  • What kind of life do you want? – We all come with different levels of innate ambition and we won’t be happy unless we meet our expectations of what a good life looks like. For some people, a good life requires a world-changing mission like Elon Musks’ goal to populate Mars. For others, they want to live a comfortable, low-stress lifestyle with some flexibility. Neither answer is wrong. Do you want a life of adventure and travel? Do you prefer to work and be productive? You have a mix of meaningful and petty desires. The key is to honor both.
  • What kind of people do you want in your life? – What kind of friends do you want to have? What kind of people do you want to date? What do you look for in a business associate? Break things down to a level of detail you’re not accustomed to—the way they view the world politically, how they dress, the venues they go to, the goals they have, the type of entertainment (or lack thereof), they watch. Think about the sorts of people you definitely don’t want in your life. I personally don’t want to spend any time with people who aren’t interested in bettering themselves.


How the answers to these questions help shape your life

The answers to these three questions will better inform your values. They’ll help you figure out what to say yes to and what to say no to. They’ll give you a much better idea of what specific items to add to your personal code.

Take me for example. I’m a man who loves knowledge, productivity, and growth—mental, physical, and spiritual. I prioritize these areas of my life above all else.

This means I spend less time doing things that aren’t productive like sitting around on the couch watching Netflix all day or going out to the bar every weekend.

I want a life where I spend most of my time building things for the sake of building them. Money comes with that territory and I plan to make lots of it. Most important, I’m not ashamed of this and I don’t let the opinions of others deter me.

Some people say I work too hard. That’s fine with me. Some say I focus too much on growth and should focus more on contentment. Contentment just isn’t an interest of mine. Once I accepted that I like to work, build, and grow instead of settle, I stopped looking at it as a “bad” thing.

All of the above dictates who I spend my time with. Some people don’t value the same things as I do, which is fine. I’m cordial with everyone I meet and sincerely want the best for everyone, but if the way you view the world is too different from mine, we’re incompatible and we’re not going to be able to build a worthwhile bond anyway.


Step 2: Create a list of values

Values are just things you care about. They’re things you care about more than everything else. Life comes with tradeoffs and opportunity costs. Doing one thing means you can’t do another thing, at least not at the same time.

Usually, if you value a certain thing, you have to sacrifice others.

For example, if you value your health and fitness above all else, you can’t eat a bunch of unhealthy foods even if they taste good and are pleasurable to consume.

If I lived solely based on my desire to eat what I like, I’d drink a gallon of lemonade and eat nothing but chicken wings, burgers, tacos, sub sandwiches, cookies, and donuts.

You get the gist.

To make things more concrete, write down a list of the things you value.

Here are some items that go on my list:

  • Freedom – Above all else, I value being able to do whatever I want whenever I want with whoever I want. Most of my decisions are guided by whether or not they will help me become more free. I dislike authority and hate being told what to do.
  • Truth – Often, I find myself in hot water because I say the things I really believe, even if they’re politically incorrect. This speaks to the value above. I want to be able to speak freely. Politically correct culture is cancer in our society and I won’t add to the spread of it.
  • Creative expression – I enjoy consuming art and making it. I love taking an idea and turning it into reality. When it comes to the people I spend time with, I enjoy being around people who prefer to talk about ideas instead of talking about events and other people.

Do you see how all of these concepts layer on top of one another? When you know who you are, what you want, and who you want to spend time with, your values start to emerge. When your values emerge, you know how to behave and what decisions to make.

I will choose a route that offers less money but provides more freedom. Working in a corporate office and making $500,000 a year wouldn’t be worth it because I wouldn’t be free. I’d have to bite my tongue due to office culture, and I wouldn’t be allowed to create what I want.


Step 3: Establish your personal code to help you stay on track

Think of this as a moral system. Your personal code includes the behaviors you will always adhere to as well as the ones you’ll never engage in.

The same holds true for the people you know. You have behaviors and traits the people around you must have as well as behaviors and traits that automatically disqualify them from being in your life.

I’ll use myself as an example again:

  • Don’t talk behind people’s backs – If I wouldn’t say it to your face, I’m not going to do it behind your back. Gossip is one of the most insidious tendencies in human beings and I try to eradicate it from my behavior altogether. If I notice certain people gossip a ton, I avoid them because I know they’re going to gossip, spread rumors, and lie about me.
  • Be specific with your language – Don’t make promises, to yourself or others, that you don’t plan to keep. Every time you do so, you chip away at your own confidence and other people lose faith in you at the same time. I’m very careful with the way I talk to myself and describe myself. I avoid using words and phrases that speak negative energy into existence, like, “I can never catch a break” or “I’m so overwhelmed.” I try to flip everything into a positive state of mind or an opportunity. Misfortune is an opportunity to grow and become stronger. Having more on my plate helps me become more responsible and reliable.
  • Refuse to conform just to get along with others – As soon as you start to change your behavior and opinions to get other people to like you, you build a false caricature that you now have to maintain. Many people come to me privately and applaud me for being willing to speak my mind and march to the beat of my own drum. I can tell they want to do it, too, but they won’t because they value the opinions of others over their own.


Personal values and standards: Tying it all together

The point isn’t to be rigid. I’ve changed my mind many times. My value system is something I use to evaluate my options and choose the next right thing. If my values aren’t leading to the outcomes I want, I change them. 

My sense of self changes over time as I learn new things and have new experiences. I’d be upset if I was exactly the same person I was five years ago. 

The point isn’t to be rude or exclusionary. I don’t walk around giving people a 50-point questionnaire to decide whether or not I want to spend time with them.

I don’t tell people that they’re wrong for having the views that they have. Throughout my day, I’m always willing to meet new people and keep an open mind when talking to them. But as I gauge certain behaviors from others, the time I spend around them is subject to shift. (And that amount of time can be reduced to zero if need be.)

I don’t aim for perfection. Neither should you. The point is to have parameters that you can use to course-correct over time. Have some idea of what you want out of this life and what you don’t. If not, how can you learn to set boundaries with others? You can’t.

If you look at the typical person in society, their personality is nothing more than the output of whatever input their environment provides. Their opinions march in lockstep with conventional wisdom, pop culture, and media. 

Since they don’t have concrete values, they let people cross their boundaries and get mad at them instead of rightfully looking in the mirror. They let people in their lives who aren’t a good fit and keep them there to their own detriment.

It’s no wonder they feel lost, stuck, and aimless.

Simply taking the time to aim in the first place makes a world of difference.

You’ll never be perfect, but if you have standards to measure yourself against, your life will get a whole lot better. Trust me.